Coimbatore police targets local news website, one arrested, two detained over coronavirus coverage

On 24 April, several local journalists of Coimbatore staged a silent protest outside the district collector’s office in Gopalapuram, against the arrest of one of their colleagues, Andrew Sam Raja Pandian, the previous day. They observed all precautions against COVID-19 and added images of locks to their masks, symbolic of the state’s attempt to muzzle the media. AR Babu
27 April, 2020

On the night of 23 April, Andrew Sam Raja Pandian, a Coimbatore-based journalist, was arrested by the local police. Pandian is the founder and chief executive officer of SimpliCity, a local-news website. The complaint against him, which was filed by M Sundararajan, an assistant commissioner in the Coimbatore municipal corporation, accused Pandian of publishing articles that could derail the state government of Tamil Nadu’s efforts to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier that day, two other journalists from SimpliCity, M Balaji and Jerald Aruldass, had also been detained and questioned by the Coimbatore police, for over seven hours. 

Balaji and Jerald were eventually let go after signing an undertaking that they would return to the police station for any inquiry. But the police charged Pandian under Section 3 of the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897, for disobeying regulations during a pandemic. He was also charged under two sections of the Indian Penal Code—Section 188, which deals with “disobedience to order duly promulgated by a civil servant,” and Section 505 (i), which refers to intent to incite public mischief and mutiny, among others. At around 9 pm that day, Pandian was produced before a district magistrate, and is currently remanded at the Avinashi sub-jail. Since the beginning of the outbreak, this is the first time that the Epidemic act has been invoked against a journalist in Tamil Nadu.

The complaint against Pandian referred to two articles published by SimpliCity. The first article, published on 14 April, covered a protest by medical students and trainee doctors at the Coimbatore Medical College Hospital over lack of food. The second report, published on 18 April, covered complaints from the residents of Coimbatore over pilferage in ration shops during the lockdown. The article clearly stated that the collector of Coimbatore had also taken note of the allegations and ordered an inquiry. However, the complaint against Pandian claimed that such reports would “turn doctors and public distribution system (PDS) workers against the government and derail efforts to fight the coronavirus.” 

When I spoke to Balaji, he said, “For about a week, we were hearing on the journalistic grapevine that SimpliCity would be in trouble. But we never imagined they would be this outright in their attack.” Balaji, who is a photojournalist, told me that around 12 pm on 23 April, he was at the Collectorate building in Gopalapuram when he got a phone call from Shivakumar, a sub-inspector at the Variety Hall Police Station. Shivakumar asked him whether his name is T Mohan Raj, who is another photojournalist with SimpliCity. When Balaji said that this was his phone number and not Mohan’s, Shivakumar accused him of frequently harassing a woman over the phone. Balaji told me that he has been using his current phone number for ten years, and he told the police that there was “no way his number had been used for harassing a woman.” Balaji said that Shivakumar insisted that he come to the Variety Hall station immediately. He said that he “sensed something was wrong,” and informed a friend who is a reporter for the regional news channel Makkal TV, and asked another reporter, who works for Thanthi TV, a Chennai-based news channel, to accompany him to the police station.

Balaji said that he was asked to give the police his phone the moment he reached the Variety Hall station. He told me that he cooperated with the police and gave them his phone to check if the offending calls had been made from his number. Shivakumar then told him that the visit was not about any calls. But the police officials took down his address details and quizzed him about his previous employment. Balaji said that an inspector and assistant commissioner also questioned him.

He told me that the police wanted to know who else had been reporting for SimpliCity. “I told them Rathanam, another reporter of ours, was in the area. They said, ‘We don’t want him, call Jerald.’” Balaji added, “It was clear they had set this up to get Mohan and Jerald specifically. Whoever had given them the phone numbers had just mixed up mine and Mohan’s.”

At around 1 pm that day, the police asked Balaji to call Jerald and ask him to come to the Variety Hall station, too. Jerald told me that the police confiscated his phone and identity cards, too, when he reached the station shortly after. “They weren’t telling us anything about why we were detained,” Jerald said. “They said we have nothing to tell you, we want to question your managing director.” The police then called Pandian, who told them that he would take some time to reach as he was not in the area.

Balaji told me that around 2 pm, the police told them that they were being shifted to the RS Puram Police Station, about three kilometres away, because SimpliCity’s office came under the latter’s jurisdiction. By this time, a crowd of journalists from several local media outlets had gathered outside the Variety Hall station. “We told them we would come to the police station on our bike, behind the police jeep. But they forced us into police jeeps without our phones or IDs, like common criminals, in front of all our colleagues,” Balaji said.

Balaji and Jerald told me that at the RS Puram station, both of them were kept in one room, alongside two police constables. “I know most police because I’ve been working on the crime beat in the city for over ten years,” Jerald said. “We asked them why we were detained, but the constables had no idea. They said that orders had come from above for us to be nabbed.” The constables told them that only the assistant commissioner of police knew why they had been detained, and they would be informed about the reasons of their detention only after “SimpliCity’s managing director was questioned.” Balaji said that constables told him “they would put us in remand if our managing director did not come.”

According to Balaji, Pandian arrived at the RS Puram station at around 6 pm and was ushered into another room for questioning. He said that the police grilled Pandian for almost two hours, following which Balaji and Jerald were asked to leave after signing the undertaking. Balaji had been detained by the police for almost eight hours and when he left, he still had no idea why the police had picked him or Jerald up. Balaji and Jerald told me that they got an idea of what had transpired only after they were released and spoke to the journalists who had gathered outside the RS Puram police station.

“What kept running through my mind throughout the ordeal was that my parents would find out about all this through the news,” Balaji said. He added, “My mother is a sugar patient and I was scared she won’t be able to take any shocking news. She would understand if I explained to her, but through the news, I have no idea how she would take the news.”

When I spoke to Shivakumar, he initially denied that Balaji and Jerald had been detained at the Variety Hall station and said that they were taken directly to the RS Puram station. When I pressed him further with Balaji and Jerald’s accounts, he told me “I don’t have anything to say about this.”

Local news portals like SimpliCity provide visibility to local issues and emergencies which are not reported by the larger regional media outlets. The role of hyper-local media outlets has become even more prominent during the ongoing COVID-19 lockdown because often, the administration and the general public are unaware of problems being faced by individual localities. Ever since the lockdown began on 25 March, SimpliCity’s reportage has included issues faced by the residents of Coimbatore, many of whom have struggled with access to food. Balaji and Jerald said that, according to some of the journalists gathered outside the station, SimpliCity’s small size—a team of ten, six reporters and four editors—made them easier targets.

Jerald told me, “It is through our reporting that the municipal and district administration hears a lot of the problems people in the city are facing … Our work has always been cooperative with the local administration.” He referred to an interview that SimpliCity had conducted with a woman in Coimbatore whose husband, a lorry driver, had been detained in Andhra Pradesh. He told me that after the interview was published on 29 February, the district and state administration ensured that the woman had access to food and enabled her husband’s bail. “Our collector, K Rajamani, is very media-savvy and approachable. He makes sure that the issues we point to are addressed quite quickly,” Jerald said. Referring to another report from 2018, he said, “Earlier there used to be an issue where the General Hospital used to throw any patients who did not have identity cards and an attendant with them, outside their gates. After we reported it, they have stopped throwing patients out and are treating them.”

Balaji, too, narrated one such account, where an article published by SimpliCity had highlighted a food crisis in one locality of Coimbatore during the lockdown. On 14 April, the website published a story about lack of ration supply and large-scale hunger in a locality called Neelikonampalayam, an area populated by migrant workers from Dharmapuri and Krishnagiri. These two districts in north Tamil Nadu are some of the poorest areas of the state. Balaji said that after their story, staff from the municipal corporation had called to ask specifically which blocks were not getting food and had ensured quick delivery of supplies to the affected communities. “We are generally treated like an essential part of what keeps the local government running efficiently,” he said.

A local journalist, who wished to remain anonymous, told me that the arrests had a political undertone. One of the articles mentioned in the complaint against Pandian, on the pilferage of food at government ration shops, carried a quote from N Karthik, a member of the legislative assembly from Singanallur. Karthik is a representative from the opposition party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. His quote had criticised SP Velumani, the minister of municipal administration, who is also from Coimbatore and a member of the ruling party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Karthik had said that the minister had been “missing in action” during the pandemic. The journalist told me that “while the administration is okay with articles about local mismanagement, naming any big names is dangerous here.” Pandian’s arrest has already sparked a war of words between the DMK president MK Stalin and Velumani. The minister has now issued a press release which said that he has nothing to do with Pandian’s arrest.

Balaji said that ever since they had run the story with Karthik’s quote, the local administration had been “slightly hostile” towards them. “Most of the police constables knew nothing about this; they all just heard it was orders from the assistant commissioner. This is clearly pressure from the top.”

The day after Pandian’s arrest, dozens of journalists in Coimbatore took part in a silent protest outside the Collectorate. Maintaining the rules of social distancing, the journalists wore masks with images of locks on them to represent the attempt to silence journalists. Even before the lockdown began, there were concerns about press freedom in Tamil Nadu. In recent months, reports had emerged of attacks against journalists, especially those critical of senior politicians. On 3 March, M Karthi, a reporter for Kumudham, a Chennai-based weekly magazine, was attacked and sustained multiple head-injuries after he published an article about a turf war between two leaders of the AIADMK. On 24 April, Adhi Suresh, a reporter for Velicham TV, a Dalit-centric television channel, was attacked in Ulundurpettai in connection with a report on a local politician from the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.

Balaji said that after the lockdown began, reporters have faced frequent hostility by the local police, too. “Even when we show police our IDs, they often try to scare us away and not report,” he said. “We don’t have government-issued ID and so it is a struggle for us sometimes. There are places where the police won’t let us report from, and even normally reporting needs long arguments and requests from police.” Sumit Saran, the commissioner of police, cut my call once I introduced myself and did not respond to further calls and an email. Sundararajan, who filed the complaint against Pandian, did not respond to multiple calls. 

Balaji told me that on 23 April, as they were leaving the Variety Hall station for RS Puram, he had spoken to Shivakumar and asked him why he had been called to the station under false pretences. He said that Shivakumar replied, “We weren’t sure if you would have come to the police station if we had told you the truth.” The sub-inspector told him, “This is something bigger. You wouldn’t understand.”